Paul Ryan's dropout delusion: Here's the real reason kids don't graduate

Young people aren't leaving high school due to a "tailspin of culture." An expert explains what's really going on

Published May 21, 2014 12:30PM (EDT)

Paul Ryan                       (Jeffrey Malet,
Paul Ryan (Jeffrey Malet,

When Rep. Paul Ryan sparked controversy earlier this year by claiming poverty in America's "inner cities" was a product of "a tailspin of culture," he might've had the stereotypical high school dropout in mind. Indeed, there are few groups more derided and dismissed than dropouts, kids who supposedly don't take their own futures seriously enough to do the tedious but crucial work of showing up to school every morning.

Yet a new report from America's Promise Alliance, using a combination of statistical analyses and old-fashioned interviews, punctures a hole in that widely accepted stereotype and shows that many so-called dropouts decide to leave school not because of laziness or petulance but rather because of instability at home and trauma from living in violent, unsafe environments. Titled "Don't Call Them Dropouts," the study is yet another piece of evidence showing that the Paul Ryan version of poverty has precious little to do with reality itself.

Salon recently spoke with America's Promise Alliance's Jonathan Zaff about the report and the challenges facing those who want to end high-school dropout once and for all. The interview that follows has been slightly edited for clarity and length.

Could you describe the report and what made you want to look into this subject to begin with?

So with America’s Promise, we have a graduation campaign where we are as a nation, trying to push the nation to attain a 90 percent graduation rate from high school by the year 2020. And, this year, we were able to release data that showed for the first time since data was really reported that we’d reached an 80 percent graduation rate and that we’re actually on track to reach 90 percent. However, we still have this very large percentage of young people — 20 percent  — who never actually graduate from high school. And we know there’s disparities in those ranks, when you get down to a district or city level, so you see some communities where the graduation rate is about 50 percent, where there is really this crisis that’s still happening ...

What we found by looking at existing research is that there’s really not a very good understanding of the lived experience of the young people who do not graduate and leave school before graduation. There’s some decent research out there, very good research on the key predictors of why people leave school, but not really much about their lives. And we believe that to adequately address the needs and strengths of these young people, we have to really understand, through their own eyes, where they’re coming from. So we took a mixed-methods approach ... to really dig into the lives of these young people at school.

How do you think people imagine the archetypal dropout, and what in your findings might complicate that commonly held view?

I think what we hear — and all of this is anecdotal — but we do hear that these young people must be quitters, that they are people who have given up, they’re not motivated, they’re lazy at times and, really, have no potential to succeed. Which leads to people really not wanting to put time, effort and financial resources in trying to reengage these young people, and trying to help them optimize their pathways to success ... In our own work, we’ve found a really different story ... Instead, we find a story of strength and substantial — some would say heartbreaking — adversity, that too many of these young people are going through.

It goes against this idea over the past couple years as character as the big concept, persistence and grit, discipline and responsibility. And the idea is that, "Well, clearly, if people have those characteristics they’re going to do well, and if they don’t then that’s why they fail." We find a very different story. We find that these young people are some of the grittiest kids you’ll find. These young kids are persisting every day through ... really horrific circumstances, but are able to bounce back each and every day through resilience. And when they find a connection to one or more individuals, or to an institution or an organization, that really is meeting them where they are and supporting their needs and hopefully cultivating their strengths, they start to thrive. They start to take on the academic course of their life again, they’re in the workforce, and they start to even give back to their community, which really flies in the face of public perception of these young people. It shows that these young people, like all young people in our society, have the potential to thrive. And given opportunity, real opportunity, and given supportive relationships and supportive environments, they can start to express those characteristics that will get them to thrive.

One thing that struck me as I was reading through some of the testimonials in the report is how often these students decided to leave the educational system based on what are, at least in the short- or medium-term, rational calculations. The conventional wisdom is that going to school is the smart play, that it pays off, and that the people who decide to stop are being lazy or foolish. But it's more complicated than that.

Yeah, I’m glad you picked up on that. That was a really powerful finding for us as well. And the testimonials we have in the report, they’re really meant to be illustrative of the overall findings, they’re expressions of what we found through our systematic analysis ... We know that there’s this idea that young people are making irrational decisions — because, clearly, you look at data and it shows clearly that if you graduate from high school, and even better, if you go to college, you’re going to make much more money, your health quality is going to be better, your overall psychological well-being is going to be better than if you left school.

But on the other hand, these people are faced with other decisions, which are actually really goal-oriented, that are just different from the goals that “we” have set out for them. There’s all these different types of stories and, as an example, you have a parent who is sick, so [their kid thinks,] "I need to leave school, because I need to actually make money to support my family." It’s an amazing display of responsibility and diligence ... In our survey, we find, 50 percent [of kids] actually take on a key breadwinner role for their family when they do leave school. Which, again, is a very rational decision they’re making.

What do we do to change that perspective? Now one [way] would be to change society because there’s all these competing factors. But I think if we look to some of the more promising programs and initiatives that bring these young people back into the education fold, and into probably more productive paths, that you see that these are programs that really meet young people where they are. They really listen to what young people are faced with, and they work with the young people, they assume these young people, correctly, have agency. They actually have the energy and ability to guide their own development and trajectories, and they need to be part of that equation ... [These programs] work with the young people on solutions. And so if a young person has a child — their own child, if they were a teen parent — and they left school to care for that child because the school wasn’t set up to deal with teen moms or teen dads, [a good] program can work with that young person to ensure that there’s proper childcare, that they’re actually supported, and that they have the bandwidth to be both a parent and a student or employee somewhere. It’s [about] really listening to the unique situation of each young person, and being able to be responsive with that young person in resolving those needs.

Are there any popular approaches to young people leaving the education system prematurely that your research indicates may not be so effective?

One is the idea of, "Let's get them back into the district, back into the kind of school that they just left." That would be, from a cost perspective, probably the easiest thing. Somehow swing open that door again and let the person come back and go to that school again, or that same type of school ... That tends not to be the most effective strategy. They’re taken back into a place that did not work for them before. To assume that it will work for them again without additional supports in their lives, that probably will not happen. And therefore, from a lack of flexibility, these young people don’t necessarily have a typical schedule. So take an example: An individual who has a child at home and is working jobs during the day, they need something where they can either go during the late afternoon hours to school, they can do something online if needed. They need that flexibility. And they need the personal connection. So I think we can’t warehouse these young people once again. That didn’t work the first time. It works for a lot of young people, but it doesn’t work for these young people.

As you mentioned earlier, there’s a larger debate happening right now about poverty and its causes. From some, you hear talk about poverty not as system or series of institutions interacting but more as a consequence of individuals who lack character making bad decisions. But when you’re someone who doesn’t buy that argument, and you point out that poverty is much more complicated and multifaceted, you can also unintentionally inspire a kind of fatalism. Because people can feel like, "God, if the problem is so big, and it’s so interwoven with other problems, how can we possibly fix it without tearing the whole thing down?" What would you say to people who are becoming fatalistic when it comes to keeping kids in school and improving outcomes?

I would give them a tour, because there are places in this country that are doing spectacular work with this kind of young person. I’d take them to Lowell, Massachusetts, to the United Teen Equality Center; to South Central L.A., to Homeboy Industries; to the Youth Opportunity Centers in Baltimore, Maryland ... These are just a few examples, a handful of examples

These organizations have developed strategies that are very similar ... where they take a multifaceted approach. And they do this the way that meets the younger people where they are. They engage young people in solutions for themselves, they provide educational and vocational experiences — as well as trauma support, because they do recognize that these young people go through a whole lot in their lives and trauma is a big part of that, unfortunately. And they’re getting the results ... If you get a chance to walk into these sites, you see these young people, you hear their stories, what they’ve endured and what they’ve engaged in. It’s not a Shangri-La. Many of them have been in gangs, they’ve dealt drugs. Too many of them have been involved in the juvenile justice system. But you see their lives have turned, and turned in a good way. They get a GED or a high-school diploma. They have job skills coming out as well. And they have this eye toward doing all these things for the betterment of themselves, the betterment of their own family, and the betterment of the broader community.

So I completely appreciate and actually struggle with that [fatalism] a lot myself ... The answer can’t be that we resolve poverty first because that’s just not gonna happen in the near future and too many young people's lives will be lost. But the hope and the promise is found by looking into so many of these programs across the country that have just kind of figured it out on their own, on how to do this ... They’ve developed really bold and compelling solutions that seem to be working for young people.

To implement the kind of reforms you find work best on a wide scale, do we need more resources or is it about using what we have more efficiently?

More resources are always helpful; this stuff doesn’t happen on its own. But some of it’s also restructuring policies ... [Sometimes] it’s just restructuring policies to let these young people back into the system; that would be one example. We have a lot of the policy structures in place and we just need to refine them or find ways to work within them ... But to say there’s no need for new resources would be naive. There definitely is a need for new resources.

What role do charter schools play here?

What you do see is that the [innovative] programs that are out there oftentimes are [found in] charters, and because they inherently will have a little more flexibility in how they function. But it doesn’t have to be [only charters] ... As I’ve suggested, when you’re talking about addressing these trends with young people on the hyper-localized level, it’s helpful to have the flexibility to do that. However, there are definitely examples of traditional schools around the country who have been able to do that, or at least work within the typical system ... The thing for us is how to promote the ideal of flexibility so we can best work to strengthen this very unique population, and the question is where can that happen. And that’s where the debate would happen. Can this happen best with the charter movement, or can it in fact happen in the traditional schooling environment?

How much would it help these kids if we ended, or at least dramatically tamped down, the war on drugs and moved away from such an incarceration-focused model?

The majority of the young people in these interviews in a couple of places (not all of them) spent a significant amount of their adolescence in a criminal justice facility. And so to think through how a young person could thrive academically, socially, when they’ve spent their formative years in a facility — it would be a shock if that could happen.

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

MORE FROM Elias Isquith